Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The different "flavors" of Christianity

I came to Christ my senior year in high school at a Nicky Cruz Crusade in 1971. Cruz came to Christ through David Wilkerson who was of a more charismatic persuasion. My first church I attended was a fundamentalist Independent Baptist Church (the John Rice, Jack Hyles, Jack Van Impe legalistic variety...if you are old enough to remember those dudes). Before that I was unchurched. Neither of my folks were practicing faith of any kind, though my mom was raised Catholic and my dad was the Church of Christ I believe. 

A year after I came to Christ, I went off to Lynchburg Baptist College (now Liberty U) and than transferred to Columbia Bible College (now Columbia International U) two years later. I graduated from Columbia in 77. Columbia theological roots were in the Keswick or "deeper life" movement. 

While at Columbia I was exposed to the whole spectrum of views through the various students and faculty, from reformed, to Arminian, to deeper life, to charismatic. I also started reading folks like Francis Schaeffer and CS Lewis and works out of a more reformed tradition. I eventually landed in an Orthodox Presbyterian Church for a couple of years after College (which is on the far right and most conservative spectrum of reformed churches. Solid doctrinally, but very little life. They were all "up in their heads." The label "the frozen chosen" I found to be pretty appropriate. But I learned a ton theologically while there and became more convinced and grounded in a reformed theological outlook).

With my than growing family (2 already born and one on the way) we moved to the Massachusetts in 82 to open a sales office for my business. While there we attended a Christian Reformed Church (Dutch Reformed) for about 4 years, than a Congregational Church for about 6 years eventually landing up in a Baptist church for around 6 years (my wife had left me and the Baptist church had a strong youth group which I attended for the benefit of my 4 kids). 

After living in Massachusetts for approximately 16 years, I moved to the west coast and attended an Evangelical Wesleyan Church for 4 years, eventually landing up in a non denominational Charismatic Church (co-pastored by 2 brothers) for the last 13 years where I taught an adult bible class for 12 of those years.

I am now in a Baptist church (in name only, which they keep under wraps) that operates more like a Presbyterian church in it's form of government (plurality of elders/pastors) and also in their eschatology and soteriology.  

The main thing Baptist about them is they practice adult Baptism. Otherwise they even enjoy a good glass of wine or a beer. Definitely not the kind of Baptist Churches I use to attend. (They also do not emphasis the "cultural mandate" of exercising dominion over all aspects of culture which is more common in more Presbyterian and Dutch reformed circles).

Why the history? I have seen a lot of shapes and varieties of churches and observed what I feel are the good and weak sides of these various groups and have drawn some conclusions along the way. The following are what I have seen.  

Charismatics tend to draw their sense of God's love through his present work and activity such as experiences and manifestations of his love in and through his Spirit. They are more experience and feeling oriented, tending to look to experiences/manifestations more than God's word, even at times giving experience more weight then God's written words to us. Given the inclination of our fallen hearts, I have concluded this is not solid ground to stand on. They tend to be so focused on present experience they can lose sight of the significance, importance and completeness of God's past work in and through Christ on our behalf and the vast depth and richness of that work i.e. they tend to chase present experiences/ manifestations of God instead of focusing on and enjoying the rock solid realities of God's presence in spite of present experiences/manifestations or lack of them.

On the other hand non-charismatics types i.e. Calvinists, Baptists and evangelicals in general tend to focus more on God's past work and to some degree his future work (Christ's return) with minimum emphasis on his present work i.e. operating "in the Spirit." They tend to draw their sense of God's love through the depth and breadth of Christ's past work (If and when they do. Many evangelicals only know more about God instead of actually have an ongoing vital experience of God personally. I find this is where Charismatics generally are stronger than many evangelical churches. They at least have some life in them, if not always as strong a grounding in God's word. The downside of this however is they can confuse some subjective experience as proof they know God, when their experience may have nothing to do with God). Non Charismatic types are propositional or doctrine oriented (even among those who do not consider themselves cessationalists but still recognize the validity of all the gifts and the various activities of the Spirit). In fact they are so focused in propositional truth and scripture they confuse knowledge about God with knowing God. (I discuss this further here). There is very little emphasis on seeking God's presence or manifestations of his presence through His Spirit and what that looks like in our day to day walk with God.  They are so focused on Christ's past work they tend to lose sight of God's present ongoing work by His Spirit.

Both Christ's past work and the Spirits present work are a necessary means by which God shows his love and grace to us and both are equally vital. To focus primarily on one to the exclusion of the other is missing out on a vital means by which God shows himself to us, no matter which side you fall on this difference.

We cannot emphasize one to the point of minimizing the other or we will miss out on the full benefit of both and the necessary connection between them. A key work of the Spirit is to reveal to us the things of Christ. And not just propositionally, but in the day to day experience and manifestation of his presence through the various gifts as well. 

Now in saying all of this, these differences are not absolute distinctions but are tendencies. All groups would say they believe what the other groups emphasis, but in practice there is a very definite distinction from my experience and observation.

I would also add the present church I attend (Baptist in affiliation) is more "charismatic" than most and the former charismatic church I was in is far more scripturally oriented than most, with a slight reformed leaning. But even with these two more "centrist" churches there is still a considerable difference between them when you look "under the hood" and see how they operate and what they emphasis. 

For the non-charismatic groups, seeking and knowing the work of the Spirit is vital and a key missing piece. We are under grace because of the past work of Christ. But to be under grace is also to operate in the presence of God by His Spirit. I touch on this more here.  My present church tends to emphasis the former and minimize the later.

Where I have landed... at present

I have personally been heavily influenced by Jonathan Edwards and those who have studied him, such as John Piper (a Baptist), Tim Keller (a Presbyterian) and Kyle Strobel, a professor at Talbot Seminary. 

(Strobel is considered an Edwards scholar and done some excellent work. Edwards is wordy (he uses the 1700's variety of English. Not unlike King James type English minus the "thou's" etc) and hard to understand. 

Strobel does an excellent job of bringing out key aspects of Edwards understanding of God in language we can understand. I highly recommend all his work but the book at the following link is a good overview of what Edwards addresses. 

I have also posted a summary of some of the main truths Edwards discusses here). 

While Edwards (along with the others mentioned) are clearly within the reformed wing of the church, Edwards understands the importance of operating in the presence of God and the role of both our affections and our reason. As some may be aware he's written an entire treatise on "Religious Affections" in an attempt to assess the increase in emotional displays witnessed during the "Great Awakening" in the early 1740's (folks loudly crying out to God for mercy, going into trances or convulsions, fainting, weeping sometimes for days etc). Though he felt there were excesses and counterfeit displays of "the Spirit" he also believed much of this was the work of God's Spirit. 

(by religious Edwards means "spiritual" as we would use it today. Not the legalistic performance based variety common within the Evangelical community) 

Interestingly, Edwards stresses (and scripturally I believe) that Christ is the Word of God i.e. the truth and light of God revealed and the Spirit is the passion and love of God displayed by which Christ is revealed and the grace of Christ's work is applied (for a further discussion on this click here). Or as he also likes to say, Christ is the light of God and the Spirit is the heat of God. Both vital in experiencing all that God offers. So Edwards would not fit well in either a Charismatic or a stereotypical Evangelical church today or maybe, to say it more positively, he could possibly work well with either. 

The balance and conclusion

Our current walk with God is anchored in the past work of Christ. Without that work there wouldn't be our present walk. Our present experience of God is based on a clear understanding of this past work. But our walk and our focus is on God being present with us right now, today in our moment to moment experience. We are not to focus only on the past work or our future hope but our present ongoing dependence on/faith in/walk with God. Our experience of God does not start and end with the past work of Christ but only begins there. This past work is the vital foundation for our ongoing participating in the ever present love of the Father, Son and Spirit. As scripture says, "the just shall live (present continuous action) by faith" and "If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit" (Gal 5:25).

God did what he did in the past so that we might know Him and walk with him in joy and power in our every present moment to the glory of His name. 

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Grace to you
Jim Deal